Ai Weiwei at the RA: Everything is art. Everything is politics

Ai Weiwei at the RA: Everything is art. Everything is politics

Ai Weiwei’s work is not unusual in drawing upon the artist’s own life experience for inspiration, but there is none of the solipsism of Tracey Emin’s Bed in his art. Ai Weiwei’s installations, sculptures and videos – which I saw last week in his powerful, moving and deeply serious exhibition currently at the Royal Academy – affirm his  unwavering commitment to human rights and freedom of expression.

Everything is art. Everything is politics.

Continue reading “Ai Weiwei at the RA: Everything is art. Everything is politics”

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Anselm Kiefer: Remembering the Future

Anselm Kiefer: Remembering the Future

TS Eliot once said that the meaning of a poem exists somewhere between the poem and the reader. The comment seemed apposite as I sat in the third room of the breathtaking Anself Kiefer retrospective at the Royal Academy surrounded by monumental artworks that spoke to me powerfully, though why they did I knew would be more difficult to articulate. Continue reading “Anselm Kiefer: Remembering the Future”

David Hockney: My Yorkshire

Anyone who has browsed the most-read posts on this blog will know that I am a fan of David Hockney’s recent Yorkshire paintings, as seen in the exhibitions at Salt’s Mill last year and, currently, the Royal Academy.  But I have to admit I was a tad disappointed with David Hockney: My Yorkshire Conversations with Marco Livingstone that I have just read, courtesy of the embattled Wirral library service.

The book consists of conversations between Hockney and Marco Livingstone who has written extensively on Hockney and co-curated the current Royal Academy exhibition, A Bigger Picture.  It’s a lovely book to look at – produced in A4 landscape format with reproductions of many of the paintings from the RA exhibition on good quality paper, with several of the larger paintings printed across double A4 fold-out spreads.

Where the book disappoints, for me, is in the text.  Livingstone has chosen to transcribe verbatim several conversations he had with Hockney during the period when he was engaged in his painterly exploration of the Yorkshire Wolds, producing the huge paintings of trees and rolling landscapes through the seasons that culminated in the RA exhibition.  Unfortunately, these conversations are not, for the most part, particularly revealing.  Hockney is often rather opaque and contradictory when expressing his well-known views on, for example photography and art; and Livingstone’s prompts often fail to push Hockney to clarify his meaning.  All in all, these conversations are nowhere near as revealing or interesting as those that form the basis of Martin Gayford’s excellent A Bigger Message: Conversations with David Hockney.

The issue of Hockney’s attitude to photography keeps recurring in his discussions with Livingstone, particularly with reference to the controversial argument he articulated in The Secret Knowledge, that advances in realism and the accuracy of representation in art since the Renaissance were primarily the result of optical aids such as the camera obscura, camera lucida, and curved mirrors, rather than being primarily due to greater artistic skill. What can be confusing is that, on the one hand Hockney insists on the importance of photographic technology, whilst at the same time speaking of photography being finished and presenting a flat and restricted view of the world.  In this respect he often talks of his return to landscape painting in Yorkshire in the late 1990s, first in watercolours and then in oil paintings, as his ‘photographic detox’; yet, at the same time the recent period of work in Yorkshire has also seen a return to photography with his experiments with nine-camera arrays.

Hockney does, indeed, admit to being contradictory:

Well, I go hot and cold about things.  I’m interested in images.  I’m interested in how images were made in the past.   .. If you’re interested in images, you’re interested in the photograph as well; it’s an image.  So I’ve always been interested in photography, but I’ve always thought it was not that good a way to make pictures.  I see now it’s because the camera isn’t used right, and all my criticism has always been this: it was always the same, ‘Well, use the camera another way’.

Livingstone begins, though, by taking Hockney back to the time when he first became aware of the Wolds:

I would have been 14, I think.  1952. In the summers of 1952 and 1953, when I was at Bradford Grammar School, I worked on a farm between Wetwang and Huggate, stooking corn, as a schoolboy.  I had a bicycle, of course that was the only way you could get around here, and I cycled around, all over…

There were no paintings of the Wolds then: working ‘long, long days’, from 7 in the morning to 7:30 at night; ‘but I was aware that I was in a lovely space. Those fields are still there.  You get wonderful views.  I do react to space, I am very aware of that.’  Later, in the 1980s, his brother went to live in Flamborough, and later still his sister moved to Bridlington, followed by his mother.  When his mother was in her nineties Hockney visited her regularly in Bridlington, and began exploring the Wolds.  Then, in 1996, when Jonathan Silver, his great friend and developer of Salt’s Mill in Saltaire, was dying of cancer, Hockney for the first time stayed over in Yorkshire for six months or more and began painting the Wolds.  He was driving every day from Bridlington to Wetherby to see Jonathan, and every day he was travelling up and down Garrowby Hill.  He made some drawings, and after Jonathan died, back in Los Angeles, he did the wonderful Garrowby Hill painting.

After Hockney returned to settle in Yorkshire, the first paintings he did were watercolours.  He speaks of the discipline of working with watercolours:

Watercolour has to discipline you in the sense that there are certain methods.  For instance, you have to paint from light to dark in watercolour.  In oil painting you can do what you want.  I liked the disciple of it;  the discipline is making you do things.

Soon, though, he was painting in oils and excited about the possibilities of painting compared to photography.  He became deeply aware that we ‘see with memory’:

None of us see the same thing.  No matter what we are looking at.  When I am looking at anything now, it’s now.  Memory is also now.  When I am looking at you, I have memories of you before.  Someone who has never seen you before doesn’t, so they see something different.  That’s what I’m saying.  That’s true of everything.  The landscape, where you are.  I became rather fascinated with this, especially when you are watching seasons change; the same trees change.  Because you have the memory of last winter, but you are seeing more this winter. ‘I didn’t notice that last winter’.  The first winter, I didn’t notice how all the branches were reaching for the light, especially in December, that’s when they stand up the straightest.  You don’t notice that until you’ve been around a while or looked at them.  This was also linking it with memory.

Three Trees near Thixendale, Winter 2007

Hockney tells Livingstone how he went about painting the trees near Thixendale (a sequence of three observed at each season).  The paintings were based on observation, rather than photographs:

We took some photographs, but they were all flat to me, and I am painting spatial feelings.  With those trees, the first time I decided it was a subject was August 2006.  I thought I’d do them in August, because they looked so majestic to me.  I realized they were about 200 years old each.  There were a lot of things about them. … Once you spend the winters here, you realize that every tree is different.  Every single one.  The branches, the forces in it, they are marvellously different. […]

They are like faces , they are.  Especially in the winter.  They are not skeletons, either.  They are very, very living; a skeleton isn’t.  So you come to see that a tree, after all, is the largest plant form we know.  It’s also a kind of physical manifestation of the life force, and we can see and feel that. … Van Gogh was thrilled by that, the infinity of nature, the never-ending variety.

William Carlos Williams was on the same wavelength:

All the complicated details
of the attiring and
the disattiring are completed!
A liquid moon
moves gently among
the long branches.
Thus having prepared their buds
against a sure winter
the wise trees
stand sleeping in the cold.
‘Winter Trees

Three Trees near Thixendale, Summer 2007

The Thixendale Trees – all four paintings – were done entirely in the studio.  Hockney says,  ‘I wanted to use memory, you see.  I had done a lot of hard looking.  I was beginning to get a vocabulary’.  And the paintings got bigger:

What was thrilling was painting from nature on what were quite big canvases – but remember there were six.  It’s unusual to paint on that scale direct from nature.

Later, of course, they got bigger still.

In the second of the two conversations which make up the book, Hockney talks at length about the ideas that lay behind the films he has created using an array of nine video cameras attached to a moving vehicle.  The films form part of the RA exhibition and create the sensation of being in nature and travelling through it.

When I went back to the camera, I didn’t go back to using it like Vermeer, like everybody else does, but I’ve used it as a collage. That’s why I went back to photography.  My critique is more that it doesn’t showyou enough, and that’s why I was bored with it.  So I took it up again to demonstrate that if you use a camera a different way, you can open it up. … A single camera isn’t very good at showing a landscape.  But nine cameras are.

Hockney 'drawing' with images from nine cameras

Towards the end of their conversation, Hockney and Livingstone discuss the new computer technologies that the artist has been using in the last few years – iPhone, iPad and printing directly from drawings created on the computer using Photoshop.  Some of these Photoshop images are reproduced in the book, and, personally, I think they are dreadful.  Onto a background painted by Hockney on the iPad are superimposed what look like superior clip art images of trees.  Nevertheless, Hockney is enthusiastic about the advantages of using a computer for both speed and precision.  He can magnify a small area of the painting temporarily so that he can work on it in detail.

For Hockney, the iPad has taken over as his sketchbook ‘totally’:

Why go back to a sketchbook?  This is terrific. … The iPad is affecting the way I’m painting, because I’m drawing bolder and bolder on it.  My mark-making is becoming bolder and bolder.

For me, the best of the iPad images reproduced in the book is this one, Untitled 12 August 2010:

In one exchange, Marco Livingstone suggests what Hockney’s recent flurry of work might signify:

With all these investigations into forms of picture-making using new technology, you have also managed during the past two years to continue using the very old technology to which you have always been devoted, that of oil painting.  Most of these pictures, including an immense painting on 15 canvases of felled logs, Winter Timber 2009, and a series of hawthorn blossom canvases, were made  in the large warehouse studio rather than from the motif. You call that sudden period of manic flowering in the spring ‘action week’, all the more exciting for its brevity and for your knowledge that a single downpour will bring down most of that delicate blossom. Is that feeling of the brevity of life – and the cycle of birth, death and renewal – particularly poignant to you as you get older? Is it an urgent desire to embrace the vitality of life that you wish to communicate in these pictures?

To which Hockney responds:

Yes, there is a desire to embrace the vitality of life and yes, it becomes more poignant as I get older.  It does for everybody, doesn’t it?  When people are in their twenties, they think they’re immortal, don’t they? When I was 23, after a year at the Royal College of Art, I received a letter from the National Insurance saying that unless I put more stamps on, ‘This could mean four and sixpence less in the pension’. The old-age pension. Well, I was 23: ‘Fuck your fucking pension! … And I thought, Fuck off. I didn’t care. I mean, four and sixpence less, this is in 45 years’ time! What are they going on about?’  Well, you think you’re immortal when you’re 23. You think you’ll never be 63, and I certainly wouldn’t have worried about four and sixpence less. […]

Well, you ponder your own mortality. But when I signed the lease for this huge studio two years ago, the moment I’d signed it I felt 20 years younger. I’d taken it on for five years, renewable to ten. I started planning, and I’m going to tell you, it gives you a lot of energy. I’d recommend it to anybody. I wouldn’t recommend retirement. Retirement isn’t a thing you even think about as an artist, anyway. Anybody who is spending their life doing what they like, any creative artist, continues till they fall over.

I’ll raise a glass to that!

Footnote:

A friend borrowed this book from Wallasey library which, according to the borrowing slip, is managed by Wirral Council’s Department of Regeneration.  Seems something very much of our times about that – books and reading seen only in terms of economic development.  I’m sure Hockney would snort.

David Hockney: A Bigger Picture

David Hockney: A Bigger Picture

We had bought our tickets weeks ago: a good move, since David Hockney’s show, A Bigger Picture, at the Royal Academy is now sold out for its entire run.

And show it is: this realisation hit me when I entered the gallery devoted to the arrival of spring.  This huge room brings to mind Hockney’s long involvement with theatrical spectacle, designing sets for the opera.  Stand at the centre of this overwhelming display and you are surrounded by 51 large prints, a series entitled The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011 that records the transition from winter through to late spring on one small road.  The prints originate from drawings made on an iPad, an instrument that didn’t exist when he accepted the Royal Academy’s invitation in 2007 to mount an exhibition.   Dominating all, on the end wall, is a massive 32-canvas painting that represents the theme’s vibrant crescendo – The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011 (twenty-eleven).  This is a theatrical experience, a stage set with the viewer at the centre of the drama.

Viewers take in ‘The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011’

This is an astonishing painting, with vibrant colours and disembodied, Rousseauesque leaves and tendrils that seem to float among the vivid orange and purple vertical slashes of the tree trunks. On the woodland floor, spring flowers and green ferns form a William Morris tapestry.  It represents the acme of  Hockney’s intent to share his rediscovery of the English landscape, and to assert the importance of careful observation of the small but significant changes that unfold daily in the natural world around us.

Hockney poses before Arrival of Spring in Woldgate
Hockney with ‘The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, 2011’

This exhibition reveals Hockney as a showman.  He was invited to stage this exhibition in the autumn of 2007, immediately after the Royal Academy display of his huge painting, Bigger Trees near Warter, and he has spent the last four years not just painting furiously, but also playing a central role in planning the layout of the whole show, room by room, as if the RA were his own giant stage set (which it is, for the time being).  It’s a show in that you sense Hockney actively wants to communicate his feelings about art and representation, nature and looking, as well as putting on a great two hours or so of entertainment – a great quantity of paintings to look at, new technologies to marvel, a stunning high definition film show, and even a bit of ballet dancing with lots of jokey allusions.

In the first room you enter you encounter four immense oil paintings of trees near the Yorkshire Wold village of Thixendale, about 20 miles west of Bridlington where Hockney now lives and has his studio.  This is the countryside where, like his agricultural labourer grandfather before him, Hockney had worked on a farm as a teenager, and where he now sketches incessantly.

Hockney, Three Trees near Thixendale, Summer 2007

Three Trees near Thixendale, Winter 2007

Three Trees near Thixendale: Summer, Spring, Winter 2007

The series illustrates a view of three trees painted from precisely the same spot during the winter and summer of 2007, and the spring and autumn of 2008.

There is absolutely constant change. Superficially, Bridlington and the country around haven’t altered much in fifty years. But when you are here, you can see how it varies continuously. The light will be different; the ground changes colour.
-David Hockney

Hockney paints each scene in vivid colours: spring dominated by the season’s abundant greens and yellows, while the winter version has the three bare trees silhouetted against a deep belt of blue with parallel bands of orange and green in the foreground.

Here the tree is introduced as a key motif of Hockney’s recent work, seeming to embody, as the RA’s guide puts it, ‘a vital life force, whether in full leaf in summer or as a bare structure in winter’.  And there is Hockney’s other great theme in this recent work – nature’s transience.  The Thaxendale series, along with others in the show, are all about nature’s cycles and the passage of time – the same process that engrossed Claude Monet when he devoted his later years to painting water lilies in his garden at Giverny over and over again.

I have painted these water lilies a great deal, modifying my viewpoint each time … The effect varies constantly, not only from one season to the next, but from one minute to the next … So many factors, undetectable to the uninitiated eye, transform the colouring and distort the planes of the water.
– Claude Monet

There have been some highly critical reviews of this exhibition, such as those by Andrew Graham-Dixon and Alastair Sook, and these have usually commented on the startling contrast between what Hockney is now doing and the work he created in Britain and America in his younger days.  The next room, ‘Earlier Landscapes’, sets out to illustrate the extent to which landscape has always been present in Hockney’s work.  Here is a selection of paintings spanning the years from 1956 (Fields, Eccleshill’ and ‘Bolton Junction’) to 1998 (the gigantic and glowing ‘A Bigger Grand Canyon’) by way of the humorous ‘Flight Into Italy – Swiss Landscape’ of 1962 and ‘Nichols Canyon’ from 1980.

Hockney,   Fields, Eccleshill , 1956
Fields, Eccleshill,1956

The first two paintings were made when Hockney was a teenager studying at the Bradford School of Art.  With their subdued colours and dull light they offer a marked contrast to the recent work.

Flight into Italy-Swiss Landscape, 1962

‘Flight Into Italy – Swiss Landscape’ is Hockney’s at his most flippant, remembering when he went with some friends to Italy to look at paintings and architecture in a small van. Hockney was stuck in the back of the van (with the red coat, presumably), and so couldn’t see the mountains as they went through Switzerland.  He painted them later from a geology textbook.

Hockney, Nichols Canyon, 1980
Nichols Canyon, 1980

In ‘Nichols Canyon’ Hockney attempts to find a solution to the problem of portraying movement and the passage of time on the static two-dimensional surface of a canvas. In the painting he depicts how he saw – both in actuality and in the layers of memory built up through repeated journeys – the places he travelled through every day by car to his home at the head of Nichols Canyon. Hockney does not depict in any naturalistic way the canyon’s environmental features, nor does he illustrate the view from his home. Instead, he takes viewers on a journey through Nichols Canyon itself, visually recreating his daily drive from his home at the top of the canyon to his studio in Santa Monica Boulevard below it.

From this room, we ease into the Yorkshire landscapes beginning with the first ones that he completed between 1997 and 1999 after he had returned to Yorkshire to be near his close friend Jonathan Silver, who was terminally ill.  Here are the by now familiar images ‘Road Through Sledmere’ (1997), ‘Double East Yorkshire’ (1998) and the magnificent ‘Garrowby Hill’ (1998), with its echoes of the California landscapes with its vivid colours and expressiveness of viewing the landscape from a moving car.

Garrowby Hill, 1998
Garrowby Hill, 1998

These first Yorkshire paintings were all painted in the studio from memory.  By contrast, those in next room were all painted directly from observation in 2004 – 2005.  Two of the walls are crammed with arrays of small or medium-sized paintings, some oils and some watercolours. One painting, ‘Wheat Field Off Woldgate’, shares an affinity with Van Gogh’s
‘Wheat Field, June 1888’.  The point of view of each artist is similar: Vincent walked into the field to paint; Hockney, too, has set up his easel at the edge of the field, immersing us in the grasses and the wheat that stretches off into the distance where electricity pylons march.  For Hockney, Van Gogh is simply a great draughtsman, his work manifesting the two qualities that Hockney values most and considers wholly entwined: rigorous observation and mastery of drawing.

There are more hints of Van Gogh later on in the exhibition, in paintings of hawthorn blossom and in the purple whorls of ‘Winter Timber’.  The last room of the exhibition, which consists of a lavish display of 16 of Hockney’s sketchbooks and iPads, should not be overlooked.  It reveals, as do Van Gogh’s drawings, how ‘everything begins with the sketchbooks’, in Hockney’s words, and how a supreme draughtsman can reveal the likeness of a man’s face in a few deft lines.  As Brian Sewell put it in his otherwise scathing review of this exhibition, Hockney is ‘one of the best draughtsmen of the 20th century, wonderfully skilful, observant, subtle, sympathetic, spare, every touch of pencil, pen or crayon essential to the evocation of the subject’.

Wheat Field Off Wolgate 2005
Wheat Field Off Wolgate 2005
Van Gogh, Wheat Field, June 1888
Van Gogh, Wheat Field, June 1888

Another fine painting in this group is ‘Woldgate Tree’, a portrait of a solitary tree in early spring, just about to burst into bud.  The tree is defined in just a few very fast brushstrokes, three slashes of yellow.

Every tree is different.  Every single one. The branches, the forces in it; they are marvellously different. You are thrilled. This is the infinity of nature.
– Hockney

In these oils and watercolours, Hockney does indeed capture the infinity of nature: trees and puddles, clouds reflected in puddles, a series of poems in blues and greys.

Then another room that demonstrates Hockney’s fascination with examining the same place at different times of the day and the year.  This is ‘the tunnel’, a farm track near Kilham in the East Riding.  In summer the dense growth of trees completely encloses the track, as shown in ‘Early July Tunnel, 2006’.  Here is the same scene at two other seasons:

Late Spring Tunnel, May 2006
Late Spring Tunnel, May 2006
Winter Tunnel with Snow, March 2006
Winter Tunnel with Snow, March 2006

Woldgate Woods is another series of seven large paintings (each consisting of six canvases all made from the same viewpoint) that reflects Hockney’s admiration for Monet’s Water Lilies.  Again there is close attention to to changing light and seasonal conditions (compare to the two versions below, painted a couple of weeks apart and at different times of day; another version, dated 7 & 8 November 2006, is suffused with a misty light, while ’26, 27 & 30 July 2006′ is a study in green – leaves in many shades, dappled light falling on a far glade).   The height of the trees, the sense of space and the dazzling late autumn colours all heighten the intensity of being in nature. Hockney sets out to persuade us to open our eyes to our surroundings: ‘It doesn’t have to be Woldgate – your own garden will change as much’.

Hockney, Woldgate Woods, 21, 23 & 29 November 2006
Woldgate Woods, 21, 23 & 29 November 2006
Woldgate Woods, 6 & 9 November 2006
Woldgate Woods, 6 & 9 November 2006

The next room is devoted entirely to paintings of hawthorn blossom.  It is the strangest sight, and  I wasn’t entirely sure about it (though amidst all the critical reviews that this exhibition has received, it was this room that critics tended to like the most).   For the last three years, Hockney has prepared for what he calls ‘action week’, three or four days in late May or early June when the hawthorn blossom makes its fleeting appearance. Rising at dawn, Hockney has depicted the wild exuberance of the hawthorn in the early morning light.  He says that this moment is ‘as if a thick white cream had been poured over everything’.  I found Hockney’s preparatory charcoal drawings preferable.

Hockney, May Blossom on the Roman Road, 2009
May Blossom on the Roman Road, 2009

Writing in The Guardian, Adrian Searle spoke of these landscapes having ‘an almost surreal and visionary delight’, culminating in

a painting so over the top – ‘May Blossom on the Roman Road’, from 2009 – that it looks as though giant caterpillars were climbing all over a kind of mad topiary, beneath a roaring Van Goghish sky. I wish more works could be as crazy as this: Hockney captures and amplifies something of the astonishment of hawthorns in bloom. I kept thinking of dying Dennis Potter describing in that 1994 interview with Melvyn Bragg how “nowness” had become so vivid: “Instead of saying, ‘Oh, that’s nice blossom’ … I see it is the whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom.

It is a very weird painting.

Hockney, Winter Timber, 2009
Winter Timber, 2009

On we go to a room entitled ‘Trees and Totems’, comprising a group of paintings of trees and cut timber in winter.  Here, Hockney juxtaposes the freshly-cut logs against the verticality of the purple ‘totem’ suggested by a hewn trunk and the myriad blue trees that remain upstanding, protectively surrounding the dead wood.  It is highly expressionistic, with vivid patterning (the tractor tracks on the purple trail in the foreground, the leaves and bracken alongside the logs seeming to evoke a William Morris design, and the marks on the bark of the violet stump).  Your eye is drawn along the line of the logs and the curve of the pink track on the left towards the Van Gogh whorl in the distant trees.  This is Alastair Sook in The Telegraph:

Another series, Winter Timber and Totems, introduces a touch of foreboding and forlorn melancholy. We are in the woods. Using an extreme Fauvist palette, Hockney paints tree stumps and felled logs. The culmination of the sequence is the 15-canvas oil painting ‘Winter Timber ‘ (2009). An imposing magenta stump dominates the foreground. Next to it, piles of orange logs stripped of their bark lie beside a road that leads off into the distance. The track is flanked by slender blue trees, some of which start to bend and curl into a disconcerting vortex as they approach the horizon. Thanks to the preternatural colours, the scene feels uncanny, suffused with the intensity of a vision. It doesn’t take long to read the stump and logs as reminders of mortality, or to understand that Hockney has transformed a humdrum wintry scene into a gateway to the afterlife.  … Paintings such as ‘Winter Timber’ go beyond mere topographical record, and remind us of the power of Hockney in his prime.

After the ‘Arrival of Spring’ gallery, there are two decidedly unimpressive rooms.  One consists of paintings inspired by Claude Lorrain’s ‘The Sermon on the Mount’ (1656) which Hockney encountered in New York in 2009.  Having acquired a digital copy of the painting, he digitally ‘cleaned’ the surface which had darkened due to exposure to fire two centuries ago.  Brian Sewell was scathing about Hockney’s resultant studies in his exhibition review.  They didn’t appeal to me.

A final gallery of paintings gathers some of Hockney’s most recent work.  The room is dominated by very large prints of iPad paintings of the Yosemite Valley in California.  All that can be said about these is that blowing them up to this size exposes the limitations of iPad works which have charm and delicacy at their original size.  However, the three recent oil paintings of Woldgate in this final gallery, with their close focus on the wild flowers and grasses growing beneath trees and the delicate flowers of Queen Anne’s Lace are a delight.

Queen Anne’s Lace (or Cow Parsley as it’s generally known up north) is so ubiquitous along English roadsides and hedgerows that it tends to fade into invisibility.  But Hockney has latched onto it in these recent paintings – and in the 18-screen high definition films that he has developed as another means of depicting the landscape which are shown in the penultimate room of the exhibition.

Woldgate Woods, 11.30 am 7 November, 2010
Woldgate Woods, 11.30 am 7 November, 2010
Woldgate Woods, 9.30 am 26 November, 2010
Woldgate Woods, 9.30 am 26 November, 2010

In the past, Hockney has criticised photography, saying that it is ‘all right, if you don’t mind looking at the world from the point of view of a paralysed Cyclops’.  What these films (stunning in the high-definition clarity and in their widescreen opening to peripheral vision) are about is  his attempt to overcome the discrepancy between how we see the three-dimensional world in space, volume and time, and how to translate that vision into a two-dimensional representation. He tried this before with his photo collages in the 1980s ( a few of which are on display here in the ‘Earlier Landscapes’ room).

In 2007, Hockney began experimenting with a set of nine synchronised, high-definition, video cameras attached to a rig on his Jeep. Hockney and his assistants drive slowly along the road to ‘The Tunnel’, for instance, filming first one side of the road, and then the other side, before joining them together. ‘A single camera isn’t very good at showing landscape,’ he claims, ‘but the nine cameras are’.

We see space through time. When you’re seeing the nine-camera videos of Woldgate, it’s a different time in the top right-hand corner from what it is in the left-top corner. Just as it is in real life for you.
– Hockney

The films run for about 20 minutes or so, and are both beautiful and hypnotic.  This is not simply a widescreen movie: by aiming each of the nine cameras in a slightly different direction, Hockney’s team have got close to how we experience walking through a landscape with our own eyes.

As a finale, there are scenes filmed in Hockney’s Bridlington warehouse studio with a pianist and ballet dancers,  nods to Degas, Matisse and maybe Van Gogh (yellow chairs) and, at the end Hockney raising a red mug.  At one point we see a poster with the message, ‘DEATH waits for you when you do not smoke’ (incontrovertible for sure, and an expression of the combative position on smoking that Hockney has repeatedly taken).

This is an enormous exhibition, filling ten rooms, including the vast Gallery III devoted to ‘The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire, in 2011’.  It comprises vast oil paintings, the 52 works in ‘The Arrival of Spring’ (51 of which are iPad drawings: the 52nd is a 15 metre oil painting), a wall of 18 screens showing footage from 18 cameras, a wall of watercolours, a room filled with sketchbooks (each displayed with a monitor above it, on which the pages open in a slideshow), another displaying 12 ft high iPad drawings of Yosemite, a scattering of charcoal drawings and a number of earlier landscapes.  It has been hugely popular with the public, yet almost all the reviews by art critics were hostile to a greater or lesser extent.

It is undoubtedly true that, having decided to fill the Royal Academy with work completed almost entirely in the last six years, Hockney has run the risk of quantity exceeding quality. There certainly could have been some pruning.  I could have done without the Yosemite iPads and the Lorrain homage.  But it is the sheer quantity of images (sometimes stacked two or three deep on the walls) that succeeds in immersing the viewer in the exuberance and ever-changing character of the natural landscape.  It is this, I think, that makes the show so popular.  Hockney knows how to convey – in oils, watercolours or scratches and smears on an iPad screen – a misty November morning, the sharp sunlight of an early May morning, or bars of autumn sunlight slanting through the trees in Woldgate Wood.  He leads us to see the things that we stop seeing because they are so familiar – roadside nettles, Queen Anne’s lace, dock leaves and wild flowers, the fantastical shapes of hawthorn blossom, and trees in their endlessly varied structure and foliage.

He experiments endlessly with new technologies, but not for its own sake. The 18-screen films, like the very large scale of his new paintings, is about trying to capture the experience of seeing in three dimensions, making us crane our necks, walk about, glance all over the place. These works – indeed the whole exhibition – envelop the viewer, as if the landscape isn’t simply out there, like a flat surface or a window, but all around us.

As for the iPad drawings – the speed with which Hockney can create them has allowed him to capture changing light effects through the day or the seasons. And that is the real theme of this exhibition – the representation of time itself, moving through the day, moving through the year, moving from shadow into bright sunlight.

See also

Hockney’s Bigger Message: hand, eye and heart

David Hockney and Martin Gayford

I’ve been reading A Bigger Message: Conversations with David Hockney in advance of going to see Hockney’s Royal Academy exhibition next week.  The book, which is lavishly illustrated consists of conversations between Hockney and his art historian friend Martin Gayford, and it is one of the best books on art that I have read.

Martin Gayford has compiled a record of a decade’s worth of conversations with Hockney, thoughts and ideas that have been exchanged ‘by a variety of media old and and new: telephone, email, text, sitting face to face talking in studios, drawing rooms, kitchens and cars’.  So, like the washes that make up a watercolour, the text is an accumulation of layers, arranged by Gayford but the thoughts being entirely Hockney’s.

The conversations, elegantly and plainly written by Gayford, range widely over Hockney’s career and obsessions, as well as broader questions of art and representation. Gayford prompts Hockney to talk about his move from California to Bridlington, the preparations for the exhibition at the Royal Academy, his views on the differences between painting and photography, the importance of drawing, and his ongoing love affair with the new technology of the iPhone and iPad.

During encounters at Hockney’s Bridlington studio and out at favourite locations in the Yorkshire Wolds, Hockney explains how, for the last decade,  he has been drawn to painting the landscapes, trees and hedgerows of this rarely visited part of the country:

I’ve always loved this part of the world, and I’ve known it for a long time. In my early teenage years I worked on a farm here … it was  a place where you  could  get a job  in  the holidays.  So I came and stooked corn in the early 1950s. I cycled around, and I discovered it was rather beautiful.  Most people don’t realize that, because even  if you  drive to Bridlington from West Yorkshire you think it consists of just a few fields. The Wolds are rolling chalk hills. No one ever comes off the main road. If you do, you’re the only car around. You almost never see another one, just occasional agricultural vehicles. I can take out large canvases, never meet anyone. Once in a while a farmer comes to talk and look. The whole of East Yorkshire is fairly deserted. Except for Hull, there’s no big city. Beverley is the county town; Bridlington is on the road to nowhere, meaning you’ve got to aim to come here. So I can paint here totally
undisturbed.  I enjoy this little bit of England very much.

David Hockney painting The Road to Thwing, Late Spring.

The two friends meditate on the problems and paradoxes of representing a three-dimensional world on a flat surface, whether by drawing, painting or using a camera.  All artists must reflect on these issues, but Hockney has always expressed his thoughts publicly, whether on film or in books such as Secret Knowledge (2000) in which he put forward the thesis that European painters had used images made by lenses, mirrors and cameras for at least three centuries before the invention of the daguerreotype and the birth of modern photography in 1839.

The pair reflect on drawing, with Hockney averring that drawing makes you ‘see things clearer, and clearer, and clearer still’, and explore Hockney’s turn to watercolours when, in 2003, he exhibited a series of watercolour portraits – a challenging project because the medium doesn’t allow for more than two or three layers of washes or the repeated revision that is usual with portraiture:

I used watercolour because I wanted a flow from my hand, partly because of what I had learned of the Chinese attitude to painting.  They say you need three things for paintings: the hand, the eye, and the heart.  Two won’t do.  A good eye and heart is not enough; neither is a good hand and eye.  I thought that was very, very good.

David Hockney: Self-Portrait with Red Braces (2003)

Hockney and Gayford chew over what significance different media have for the artist and the way we see – from the wall of the Lascaux cave to an iPad. The observations from both men range over numerous other artists – from Van Gogh to  Vermeer, Caravaggio to Picasso – with shrewd insights into the contrasting social and physical landscapes of California, where Hockney spent many years, and Yorkshire, the birthplace to which he has returned. Hockney vividly recalls  individuals he has encountered along the way – from Henri Cartier-Bresson to Billy Wilder – making this an entertaining read.

Although he has experimented with photographic collage techniques in the past, Hockney feels restricted by photography, asserting that it has made us all see in a rather boring similar way:

We think that the photograph is the ultimate reality,but it isn’t because the camera sees geometrically.  We don’t.  We see partly geometrically but also psychologically.  If I glance at the picture of Brahms on the wall over there, the moment I do he becomes larger than the door.  So measuring the world in a geometrical way is not that true.

David Hockney in front of Bigger Trees Near Warter (click to enlarge)

This leads on to a discussion about why he has taken to painting bigger and bigger pictures such as Bigger Trees Near Warter, ‘perhaps’, says Gayford, ‘ the largest pure landscape painting in art history, certainly the the most sizable ever painted entirely out of doors’.  For Hockney, the size of these recent paintings is crucial:  ‘a photograph couldn’t show you space in this way.  … I think in the final picture you have a sense of being there.

A still from the 18-screen video May 12th 2011 Rudston to Kilham Road 5 PM.

That sense of being there is something that he is striving for in his latest deployment of new technology – the 18-screen, multi-image, wide-angle, high-definition films of hedgerows, foliage and trees which he describes as ‘drawing in space and time’, and which are a dramatic element in the new exhibition.

Hockney loves gadgets, and he loves to paint, and, as these conversations reveal, he loves trees:

Trees are the largest manifestation of the life-force we see.  No two trees are the same, like us. We’re all a little bit different inside, and look a little bit different outside. You notice that more in the winter than in the summer. They are not that easy to draw, especially with foliage on them.  If you are not there at the right time, it is difficult to  see the shapes and volumes in them. At midday, you can’t do that.

For Hockney, trees are long-lived, for a while they become old friends and then they outlive us (though not always).

Yes, the trees become friends. One road I like particularly has trees that must have been planted two hundred years ago. I’ve always liked trees, but being here you look really hard at them. You notice things. The ash trees are always the last to come out.

Hockney and Gayford discuss other artists who shared the same passion; they talk about Constable, who had a favourite ash tree that he passed every day on Hampstead Heath, and his 1821 Study of the Trunk of an Elm Tree, an intense study of the details of bark; and they refer to Colin Tudge’s The Secret Life of Trees, a book that both men admire. Gayford writes that trees are ‘like human figures in the landscape, vegetable giants, some elegant, some heroic, some sinister … but they are also remarkable feats of natural engineering, capable of holding up a tonne of leaves in summer against the forces of gravity and wind’.

John Constable: Study of the Trunk of an Elm Tree c.1821

The move back to Yorkshire made Hockney intensely aware of the changing seasons, another central theme of his recent work, particularly the paintings of the place he has called ‘The Tunnel’, a nondescript track leading off the road that is flanked on both sides by trees and bushes that arch over the track.  He has painted this place in every month of the year.  This is Hockney thrilled at the onset of spring in East Yorkshire:

Every time we get the spring I get thrilled like that. Here we’ve noticed – and it takes you two or three years to notice – there’s a moment when spring is full. We call it ‘nature’s erection’. Every single plant, bud and flower seems to be standing up straight.  Then gravity starts to pull the vegetation down. It was the second year I noticed that; the third, you notice even more. At the height of the summer, the trees become a mass of foliage, and the branches are pulled down by the weight. When it falls off they’ll start going up again.  This is  the  sort of thing you  notice if you  are looking carefully. The fascination just grew for me here. This was a big theme, and one I could confidently do: the infinite variety of nature.

Through these conversations we learn a great deal about art, and gain a real sense of Hockney’s boundless enthusiasm and energy – hugely productive, painting outdoors nearly every day, and engaging delightedly with the latest technology. Towards the end of the book he remarks:

I am greedy for an exciting life. I want it to be exciting all the time and I get it, actually… I can find excitement, I admit, in raindrops falling on a puddle and a lot of people wouldn’t.

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